A 21st century exorcist

Martin Shaw is back on TV – but how will he fare against an adversary with supernatural power?

William Friedkin's 1973 film The Exorcist set the bar impossibly high for subsequent horror directors. Often parodied, never bettered, Linda Blair's head-turning projectile vomiting – not to mention her character's enterprising use of a crucifix for a sex toy – have led others to the painful realisation that they are only ever going to be trapped in slavish imitation of this ground-breaking hardcore horror classic.

You may be forgiven, then, for hearing demonic cackling at the news that BBC1 has made a prime-time drama series in which the central character is a Vatican exorcist. Our man with the rosary is to be played by Martin Shaw – the former Professionals beefcake turned crusading barrister Judge John Deed. But even more eye-catching is that for Shaw, Apparitions is not just another acting gig – the six-part series is his brainchild. Furthermore, it's one he hopes will inject some "positivity" into our lives. Scary stuff indeed.

"I had the idea and thank God the BBC went along with it," he says, without irony. "It came out of what is now 45 years in the business and my sense of what ought to be done and what was missing. I thought there was too much law, too many cops and too much medicine, so let's do something else'.

A priest, though, and one without a romantic backstory. This isn't going to be The Thorn Birds. "No it isn't. We definitely didn't want that. But it has to be dramatic and at the same time I wanted to see if there was a way of putting across a message of positivity. It coalesced into the idea of a priest because that would give a reason for positivity, for faith, for goodness...."

All of which might suggest that Shaw has quietly turned into the slightly crackers lovechild of Mary Whitehouse and Cliff Richard, but he seemed perfectly sane when I met him. It's just that he feels that most drama these days is a "bit of a downer".

"Apparitions evolved out of wanting to do something different and something positive," he says. "Then it was just a question of handing it over to Joe Ahearne, who is a national treasure as far as I am concerned, and it is unbelievable what he has done."

That could be the masterstroke. Ahearne, who combines credits as both writer and director on Apparitions, cut his teeth on This Life, BBC2's fondly remembered (until an ill-advised belated return) Nineties saga of young urban professionals. His first solo credit, Ultraviolet, became something of a cult item with its tale of modern vampires, and more recently Ahearne has found a natural home in the creative hot house of Doctor Who.

"The original idea for Apparitions was of a priest who is working to promote candidates for sainthood," says Ahearne. "I discovered in research that the issues in exorcism and possession were much more exciting than the usual horror approach to them. I loved the idea that extreme sanctity and extreme evil were interwoven."

The opening episode begins strikingly with the exorcism of Mother Teresa on her deathbed in Calcutta. "It's true. Mother Teresa was exorcised before she died in 1997, and I don't think that's as unusual as it sounds," says Shaw. "Because the Catholic church would say – and it makes sense to me – that the more holy somebody is the more likely they are to come under attack from the Devil."

Shaw plays Father Jacob, whose day job is promoting candidates for sainthood, but who's also a dab hand at driving out demons. The actor says exorcisms are more common than most people believe: "While we were filming, someone brought in a newspaper cutting reporting that Pope Benedict was asking for there to be an exorcist in every parish; clearly he feels it's necessary."

Research was scrupulous, he says. "All the ecclesiastical processes are shown. We had a Roman Catholic priest with us at all times and I said to the priest, 'If at any time you're unhappy with anything, just come and tell me.' But we never had that remark at all."

I bet they didn't. For all its explicit, post-watershed storytelling, Apparitions could well go out instead of Songs of Praise. Not only is it gripping drama, it's terrific Christian propaganda. What may be more shocking for some viewers than the demonic business with vomit, bleeding eyeballs and the Tourette's-style obscenities, is how seriously the drama takes religion. Never mind upsetting Catholics, Apparitions could well end up offending atheists.

A "devout atheist" himself, Ahearne says "the inspiration for the series comes from the Catholic Church – its theology and beliefs. Because many of those beliefs are out of place in a secular society like Britain, this creates great conflict which is the engine for great drama.

"I have a new shelf of literature at home relating to miracle investigation, histories of the saints, exorcism and the nature of evil, but I also have books from the current wave of atheist writers denouncing religion as poison." And in Apparitions it's the demons who get to paraphrase Richard Dawkins.

Martin Shaw admits to a more ecumenical sort of belief than his character. "I'm not a Christian, but I believe in God and I believe in spirituality." And exorcism isn't a completely exotic idea, he says, in a society full of new-age remedies. "I think it depends on what names you apply to something. I mean, I don't know whether you've been to an alternative therapist or a cranial osteopath and reflexologists and so on. Sometimes, particularly with the more subtle forms of osteopathy, they're not even touching you. Strip the osteopath naked and put a bone through his nose and you'd say he was a witch doctor. "The stuff the Catholic church does is labelled exorcism, but I've had a Buddhist priest bless my house and it was just different words."

Dabbling in the occult can spook a man, but Shaw says nothing untoward occurred to him during the shoot. And Ahearne says that although he bought a crucifix in Rome, which he still wears, "Some actors had unnerving stories to tell during the shoot, but not me. My unfaith remains unshaken. I need big miracles to make me believe."

What is clear is that Apparitions has all the potential to be laughable, sub-Dennis Wheatley-style hokum. What makes it seriously entertaining hokum (or realist drama if you believe in demonic possession) is the combination of Shaw's screen presence – imagine Robson Green in the role and shudder – and Ahearne's smart and modern script. And to enjoy the show it's no more necessary to believe in God than it's necessary to believe in aliens to watch The X-Files or vampires to enjoy Buffy (or Ahearne's Ultraviolet).

What is equally impressive is that the series eschews a knowing irony; it's played dead straight. There's an almost subliminal one-shot homage to Max von Sydow in The Exorcist, but that is all. Is Shaw lining up a return series? "That is our hope, and the BBC have optioned one. But whether it goes forward is in the hands of the viewing public, the hierarchy at the BBC, and God." The hierarchy at the BBC probably wouldn't disagree with that pecking order.



'Apparitions' begins on BBC1 in mid-November

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?